Saturday, 6 June 2015

What it Means to be Mean

The Steyne, Manly
A quarter of a century ago, in the North American winter of 1991, I visited New York for the first time in fifteen years.  I was there to interview a cousin who was dying.  My cousin told me things about an aunt we shared that I'd never heard before, and directed me to others who could tell me more when he’d gone.  It was a poignant moment.  I’d been told that this aunt of ours had been a Soviet apparatchik and, I'd reason to believe, had been liquidated in the 1930s purges.  I’d wanted to write about her and, though much of what I’d previously been told was mistaken, there was enough that was true for me to proceed.

My visit coincided with the last days of the Soviet Union; by the end of the year it would collapse entirely.  By that time too, Western countries were deeply committed to neoliberal economics.  State intervention was minimised, and there was a near-universal belief that the free market was the sine qua non of democracy, which the abject failure of the Soviet socialist experiment only served to confirm.  Certainly, there was not a lot of sympathy for mixed economies, let alone for socialism.  Never having had much purchase in America, socialism now was well and truly dead.  Even though in 1991 the US was in recession, the belief in unregulated markets was staunch.  It could be said that after ten years of Reaganomics, belief was an understatement.  By the time of my visit, the market was god.   

But there was another side to this.  When another cousin took me on a ride through the city we drove past Tompkins Square, where a whole bunch of people were living in cardboard refrigerator cartons.  This was a shock – when I’d last been in New York, in 1975, there weren’t people living on the street, there wasn’t this new class of homeless.  It was nothing, either, to see people with begging cups at subway entrances, or roaming through the carriages jingling them. Nor could I have predicted that several years down the track I would see similar sights in Los Angeles or Vancouver or Sydney.  Or - what was possibly worse - that the rest of us would be okay with this.

The figure in Australia today is over 100,000 homeless, up 17 percent from 2006.  Though free market ideology is beginning to be questioned, with many studies pointing to growing inequality since its influence took hold in public policy and community thinking, the idea that poverty and homelessness are individual failures rather than a failure of the system dies hard.  It’s been over three decades now since neoliberalism transformed our economy, rescuing it from ‘banana republic’ irrelevance, and triggering a colossal mineral boom.  Now that the boom has subsided, the market is looking ever more inadequate for dealing with the challenges ahead.  There have been considered responses to this, but on the whole, instead of adapting to the new circumstances, neoliberalism has gone on the defensive.  The Abbott government, in its effort to rein in a budget deficit, has persisted in penalising the poorest sections of our community rather than stop spending money on its ideological imperatives, or cut down the huge tax expenditure on superannuation, negative gearing and other concessions to business and wealthy investors.  They have in their second budget adopted a stimulus measure, dipping their hats towards Keynes, but this is of benefit only to those possessing an Australian Business Number.  Very few on Newstart, our scandalously meagre unemployment benefits, would be in possession of those.  

So the culture of neoliberalism persists.   More, it pervades.  How deeply is yet to be fully determined, but indifference to the plight of the marginalised, demonised, disadvantaged or unfortunate abounds.  It is manifest in our devastingly cruel treatment of asylum seekers, including children; in our singling out Muslims as responsible for the growth of terrorism; in the radical cuts in funding for services like legal aid, refuges, schools and hospitals; and attempts to shut down remote Aboriginal communities.  And it’s popped up here in my suburb, the glorious Sydney seaside suburb of Manly.   

Once referred to as Sydney’s Brighton, Manly has a long and checkered history.  When I first came to know and love it, back in the 1960s, it was in its raffish, low-life stage, which continued until the boom of the 2000s.  Suddenly it became one of the smarter places to live.  Rents and house prices zoomed.  The old, rotting timber pavilions along the ocean were torn down and replaced with spanking new replicas.  The largest of these, decorated with blown-up photographs of Manly’s past and lined with wooden benches inside, proved the perfect doss for our homeless.  But as tourism is now a major source of revenue, and investors, property owners, and real estate agents become ever more concerned with the tone of the place, the council was not about to let the squatters stay.  So instead of outright tearing the pavilion down, it boarded it up. 

There it sits, in the middle of the ocean promenade, with a sign on the hoardings informing us it’s been ‘closed for refurbishment works’.  How it could possibly be refurbished when it’s completely boarded up is a question that’s never been answered or, as far as I know, been asked.  But it's gone some way to solve the problem of the homeless, who’ve had to make do with one of the smaller pavilions or any other shelter they can find.

The rise of homeless has unfortunately coincided with significant reduction of government spending on public housing, either on maintaining existing stock or building new ones.  Here in Sydney the state government is selling harbour shore houses in order to release the land to developers, who are seizing the opportunity to build expensive units and townhouses in their place.  This is part of the ongoing process of moving poor people out of prime locations and into barren ghettos in the hinterland, far away from the harbour, and decent transport and facilities.  Overall, it isn’t a pretty story, but all too typical of how mean we have become.

I’ve never read or heard comment about Manly Council’s boarding up the pavilion.  Perhaps it’s occurred, but there’s been nothing approaching outrage that I know of.   Parents with prams, labourers, surfers in wetsuits, metros on skateboards, office workers on stilettos, grannies with walkers and dedicated dog-walkers, tourists, and day-trippers – we all just keep walking by.